Five Hispanic teenagers from Howard County have learned that a squirt of chilled water to the chest can be an important training technique during play rehearsals. When wielded by community theater director Betty May, it reminds the novice actors of missed cues and hurried lines.
"It works! It works!" said Carlos Urtecho, a rising senior at Mount Hebron High School.
Urtecho and his fellow actors have good-naturedly accepted May's unorthodox methods. In just months she has helped them acquire the know-how and confidence to portray different characters, perform a rap song and even do a bit of Sinatra before audiences, all as they deliver an anti-tobacco message.
The middle and high school students have two names for their ensemble -- Teens From the Hood and Jovenes del Barrio. In English and Spanish performances at churches, libraries, summer camps and community events, they warn about the dangers of smoking.
The troupe is an initiative of three service groups that work with Howard County's Hispanic residents -- Alianza de la Comunidad, Conexiones and the Foreign-born Information and Referral Network (FIRN). They've joined with the county Health Department, which is underwriting the effort with $30,000 from the state's Cigarette Restitution Fund Program, created in 2000 as part of the national settlement with the tobacco industry to address the harmful effects of smoking.
"It's for Hispanics by Hispanics," said Shanta Williams, director of the Health Department's Tobacco Control Program. "They're more apt to listen to that."
The teenagers know about clandestine cigarette breaks among their peers at school and have learned the grim truth about smoking through their performances.
"I didn't know somebody could die from being around smokers," said Urtecho, 16.
Organizers said another benefit of the initiative is to give Hispanic teenagers a visible role in the community.
"It has the beginnings of a Hispanic youth theater in Howard County," said Murray Simon, president of Conexiones.
It's not so easy for the actors to perform in two languages, said May, likening the task to learning two scripts instead of one. Still, the teenagers already have faced huge transitions, leaving Central and South America with their families to settle in the United States.
"Hispanic people come to America for a better life," said Claudia Carrillo, 16, a rising junior at Wilde Lake High School.
Orlando Villalonga, a 13-year-old rising freshman at Wilde Lake, didn't know any English when he arrived in the United States three years ago from Venezuela. Now he, like his fellow actors, speaks English fluently, and he talks about staying in the United States to become a computer engineer.
The teenagers all have professional careers in mind, hoping to become doctors, lawyers or, in Carrillo's case, a lyricist. Performing in the troupe, she said, "goes with the career I want to do when I get older."
May, who is paid by FIRN to stage a production, held auditions at local high schools and contacted churches such as St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Columbia. The students are paid.
Getting them to feel comfortable onstage in front of strangers has taken a while. Roy Appletree, FIRN's executive director, recalled watching an early rehearsal.
"The kids were shy; they really hadn't done acting before," Appletree said.
That didn't deter May, who had operated the Little Theatre on the Corner in downtown Ellicott City for 10 years. After her Onstage Productions folded in 1992, she decided to visit Central America. Knowing "eight words of Spanish," she organized a children's theater troupe at a squatter's settlement in Guatemala, and over the next seven summers, the troupe performed in cities and villages all over the country.
"I'm from the generation that was going to save the world. You know, '60s stuff," May said.
As it turns out, the group was an unexpected source of solace for May when her husband of 42 years -- author, psychiatrist and spiritualist Gerald G. May -- went into the hospital this spring. Beset by multiple health problems, May, 64, died April 8.
"I thought he would come home," said Betty May, her eyes filling with tears. "The kids have been wonderful through all this. They really helped me a lot."
During a rehearsal in her basement, May, dressed in black, briskly called the teenagers together while her assistant, Amparo Jaramillo, managed the sound system and props. The youths were relaxed and engaging as they danced, rapped and portrayed teenagers in need of a nicotine fix.
It was a less comfortable setting at the Oakland Mills High School gym, where the troupe appeared during a recent community services fair. The sound system seemed muffled in the cavernous expanse, and fairgoers wandered in and out as the teens performed. The thumping beat of a rock band playing outside could be heard.
But as the Teens From the Hood/Jovenes del Barrio finished their last song, applause rippled across the gym.